So what is all the fuss about smoking your food? Well there are three main types of smoking: cold smoking (68°F to 86°F), hot smoking (126°F to 176°F) and smoke baking. You probably eat something cold smoked every morning, or at least every morning you’re not on a diet. Barbecuing though, really refers to smoke baking, where you’re actually cooking the food (rendering the fat) as well as smoking it.
Smoking is always done with hardwoods and never with softwoods, as softwoods possesses toxic resins. Hardwoods contain three main materials: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. When these three materials are burnt at certain temperatures they produce those chemicals that people associate with the flavors of smoking.
Now for a bit of science........
Cellulose burns at 540°F to 610°F while hemicellulose burns at 390°F to 480°F and both produce a class of chemicals called furans, lactones, acetaldehydes, acetic acids and diacetyls. Lignin burns much higher at 750°F, producing guaiacols, vanillin, phenols, isoeugenols and syringols.
Burning wood higher than 750°F breaks down a lot of these flavor compounds into harsh or flavorless chemicals. This is of special concern when using a starter for the wood fire such as charcoal or propane as they can burn as high as 2000°F and 3600°F respectively.
To really, effectively dump these flavor compounds onto our meat requires a light blue smoke bellowing from your smoker. Dark, white smoke usually means either the fire is too hot or too starved of oxygen. The lack of oxygen will burn the wood via a primary combustion producing carbon monoxide and a whole lot of smoke with little to no flavor compounds. You probably seen people blow into the fire to increase oxygen flow and prevent that evil white smoke from being produced.
From this, you probably guessed that it’s not really the smoke that is producing that barbecue flavor but rather the gases, which is really why you need a light blue, almost clear smoke being produced from your fire.
Controlling the temperature of the fire and the color of the smoke are the two most important things to monitor when you barbecue. Yes, it’s more important than the rub, the type of wood, the type of smoker etc! There is a reason why this aspect tends to get glossed over; it takes a lot of time and effort, but when it’s done right it’s sure worth the extra effort. Now, with all this new knowledge go forth and make your own killer ribs.
Want some more info? Check out amazingribs.com